After Ivanka Trump told CBS that “I don’t know what it means to be complicit,” Merriam-Webster helped her out with its definition: “Helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” The dictionary, whose lexicographical sick burns have been lighting up Twitter, observed that complicit also trended back in March, used by Saturday Night Live as the name of a perfume in parody of the president’s daughter.
In its look at complicit, Merriam-Webster noted that the word, which it first attests in 1856, is likely a back-formation of complicity, notoriously defined in the late 17th-century as “a consenting or partnership in evil.” But what are the deeper roots of complicity? Let’s unfold them.
Deploying a complex and perplexing multiplicity of plies
Complicity ultimately comes from the Latin complicāre, “to fold together.” You can imagine how aiders and abettors are “folded together,” or complicit, like partners in crime. The root verb here is plicāre, whose basic meaning is “to fold”—and boy, has this root been folded into English vocabulary.
Most of the plicāre-derived words came into English from French from Middle English onwards. Below is a sample, with their literal Latin meanings broken down. I’ll trust you with the words’ semantic development, but they all riff on the underlying metaphor of “folding.”
- Apply, from applicāre, “to fold to.” Application and applicable are also so derived.
- Complicate, also from complicāre, as is accomplice.
- Deploy, from displicāre, “to unfold” or “scatter”
- Display, a doublet of deploy. Think “unfurl.”
- Employ, from implicāre, “to fold into”
- Explicit, from explicāre, “to fold out of.” Explicate is the older form.
- Exploit also derives from explicāre, likening something “folded out” as an “action, deed, outcome”
- Imply, implicate, implicit: all from the same implicāre
- Multiply, from multiplicāre, “to fold many times over”
- Ply, whether wood or toilet tissue, from the base plicāre, with the notion of a “fold” as a “layer.” To ply someone (with wine, say) is shortened from apply.
- Reply, replicate: replicāre, “to fold again”
- Splay, an early shortening of display
But we haven’t finished folding the lexical laundry yet. Closely related to Latin’s plicāre is plectere, a verb referring to a specific kind of folding: “to twist, plait, braid.” A form of plectere ultimately shows up in:
- Complex, with its many parts “twisted together”
- Complexion, which originally referred to the classical humors that were “twisted together” to form one’s character
- Duplex, literally “twofold”
- Multiplex, “many twists and turns”
- Perplex, literally “folded through,” hence “entangled” and “confusing”
- Simple, from simplex, “plain and uncompounded.” Think “one-fold.”